Letter from a Young Man

June 29, 2015

In Blog Letters To Finkelstein News

Dear Dr. Finkelstein,

It took me over a month and a half to finally sum up enough courage to e-mail you. Exactly a month and a half ago, I was fired from my teaching position, two weeks before the school year ended. I work at a private family-owned elementary/middle school and taught 7th grade Louisiana History and 7th-8th grade French. I am 27 and this was my third year working there (I also attended the school as a child for 13 years). My first year, I had a number of Palestinian-American students who played a very influential role on my entire life. It led me to discover your work and also to the entire other side of all the politics and history I had previously learned up to that moment.

At the beginning of this most recent year, I began trying to speak to my bosses about trying to make small improvements here and there to create a healthier learning environment. (Using Dewey, Freire, and Russell as my guides)  The curriculum was almost entirely based on the “banking method of education” and the disciplinary situation resembled that of military training facility.  I tried to make sure I didn’t push too hard and overwhelm my bosses because they were 100% under the belief that nothing was wrong with the school.

However, I soon found out the meaning of that Frederick Douglass quote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” I foolishly believed my boss would be on board for such changes (since it would make the students smarter, plus give the school to a better reputation). She responded with accusing me of idealism, naivete, and not enough experience.

I figured the only thing I had left was to try and use my class as an example and hopefully show the school and other teachers that there is something to the methods I chose to use.

The year went smoothly, the 7th grade History class was ecstatic learning in such a different fashion.  However, the week before I was fired, my lessons maybe came back to bite me in the rear. I tried to show throughout the year that change comes about when individuals come together and work for solutions. I tried to de-popularize the myth of “great” people by focusing on social/labor/civil rights history. (In New Orleans, we have a square named after Andrew Jackson). I also tried to have the kids overcome their resistance to working in groups. The school creates quite a lot of competition (mostly negative) and this was my hardest task. A few days before my firing, my students walked into class, and what do you know, they all decided to sit on the floor. I had to make a quick decision, do I tell them to sit in their desks? Or do I embrace the first time I had seen the kids do something as a group? I decided to take the second route, I ignored the fact they were sitting on the floor and tried to pretend not to notice. (this drove them even crazier) The next day, we had a discussion (sitting on the floor again) and we concluded that there would be conditions in order to sit on the floor (couldn’t break any other rules period, weren’t allowed to do it in other classes, etc.). I saw an opportunity to teach them about the task of building a political or social movement and how to go about deciding specific issues and/or tactics. (the previous lessons were about Cameron Tillman, a 14 year old African-American boy from LA,  being murdered by a police officer while Cameron was unarmed, and the Angola Three).

The students really responded well to me respecting them and not forcing them to sit in their desks. They agreed not to do it in other classes, and it would only last as long as no one took advantage of it. Yet, four days into the “sitting”, my boss eventually heard about it and walked into the middle of my class and demanded the students to take their respective seats. Later in the day, I was brought into my boss’s office and basically interrogated. She was hoping to force me to admit that I either openly promoted this “protest” or manipulated the students into doing it. I told her the students were trying to show me that they could do something as a whole. I tried mentioning how the examples I used throughout the year all pointed to the fact that when reforms and positive changes occur, it usually has to do with regular citizens coming together to mobilize. This was there symbolic way of doing that and was really no harm to sitting on the floor (even if foolish).

However, I was given an ultimatum, she was calling the entire grade together right before the end of the day and I was ordered to tell them (in her presence) that they were no longer able to sit on the floor. At this moment, I politely (and sadly) declined. I told her that if only I could spend the evening trying to fully explain the details behind everything and she would see that kids sitting on the floor isn’t threatening to her authority (it might be though). I asked, “What reason do I give the students for being unable to sit on the floor? “My boss told me so”?, “it is against the rules”? (although I had the students ‘analyze’ my classroom policy manual to make sure they communicated all the rules to each other clearly, and they certainly didn’t break any explicit rules). Her response, “The desks were expensive, and they are there to sit in.” I told her I believed that was being intellectually dishonest and it was at this point that I was fired from my post.

I remember the first thing upon arriving home from that last day of work was to somehow think of an e-mail that I could send to you. However, i believe at the time, I thought that your case was so different than mine, what could I say we have in common? However, a month and half later, after hearing responses from all of my students and parents, I am beginning to feel/experience some of the same things you mentioned you went through after your dismissal from DePaul. My boss e-mailed all the parents trying to profess the necessity of letting me go and mostly speaking ill of me (indirectly that is). However, I began visiting each student and parent in person one by one. Literally, 100% of them were all saddened by my loss, they didn’t understand why I was fired, they, unfortunately, would tell me my class was the best or that it was the only one I learned something in. I didn’t know how to respond to these remarks, I felt I didn’t deserve them because I made mistakes and I know my firing caused the student’s a lot of unneeded grief and sadness.

After hearing these things, it became very easy to become enraged at the school and devolve into a state of self-pity. Yet, a lot of parents and students understood or stated to me how I did what I thought was right. i stood up for my beliefs and even if the kids don’t understand today, they will always remember you.

Our two dismissals seem worlds apart, yet I wanted to share this story with you for a long time. Listening to some of your interviews where you mentioned DePaul, I found some confidence to look back and try to see my situation in a different perspective. I also began to understand more the realities of what happens when you speak outside the range of acceptable opinion, even in a middle-school. I think I understand that I have to make sure I have actual facts and that I need to be able to clearly present my arguments and be intellectually prepared when dealing with politics (even workplace politics!) Although the biggest mistake was thinking I could convince my boss by myself without any support.

Sorry if this story seems way too long or very rushed or incoherent. You need not respond. Just know that your firing from DePaul was not all for naught. It certainly helped me during a very dark time period.

Thank you for all the work that you do. I remember the first time I heard you speak, you said something to the effect, “never have heroes, because they’ll always let you down.” It was a life-changing moment. I have tried to stay true to that because one of the problems I had growing up was always trying to find a suitable hero (and never able to find one without any flaws).

The interview of your mother you posted is inspiring as it is chilling. Having heard you mention what your mother was like growing up and her moral fortitude. Hearing it clearly in her voice was definitely something I won’t easily forget. (in a good way).Thanks for posting.

Lee Jones